All Men Are Islands

Archipelago (Joanna Hogg, 2010)

This appears to be the holiday from hell.

Edward (Tom Hiddleston) is about to leave his lucrative job and his girlfriend for AIDS educational work in Africa (vaguely, somewhere), so he has been dragged to Tresco in the Isles of Scilly by his mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) and sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard), to stay in a house that they have rented many times before. Helping them are housekeeper, cook and dogsbody, Rose (Amy Lloyd) and artist Christopher Baker (Christopher Baker).

To be honest, Rose and Christopher are the ones to spend a holiday with.

Christopher is meant to be teaching them how to paint – mainly Patricia, to also be honest – but he also acts as a father figure to the clearly in crisis Edward, which is just as well, as the invited father has neither shown up, nor explicitly said he wouldn’t be coming after all.

For which I can hardly blame him.

Whilst Edward is constantly full of doubts, and wishes Rose could eat with them rather than just be a hired help – has he a soft spot developing for her? – Cynthia is full of certainty and insists on making scenes, indeed on insisting others make scenes, notably when the five of them are the only diners in a posh restaurant and she wrongly complains about the status of the guinea fowl.

It’s meant to be pink.

We await the explosion, as does the off-season island. There are shades of Mike Leigh, although I’d not sure how much is improvised, and the characters clearly assume we know more about them than Hogg lets her script tell us. The dull weather, the oddly painted walls, all add to a sense of claustrophobia. And so does the camerawork – it is fixed in a series of single positions rather than using continuity editing, with characters not necessarily on the centre of the screen, or sat in shadows or obscured by natural backlighting. Aside from the closing credits, no music points our emotions – we train our ears on the dialogue and monologue.

You feel their discomfort – it is not a comfortable film.

The awkward family dynamic anticipates Hogg’s The Souvenir, although the speechifying artist (filmmaker there) is somewhat undercut. There, also, the influence of Hogg’s Jarman is felt, and not just because of Tilda Swinton’s presence.

The acting is excellent, even from the nonprofessionals playing themselves, and Hiddleston is excellent, a long way from his superhero persona. There is much to admire, indeed, but it is all a little hard to like.

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